Sebastian Vettel was in a class of his own at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday in the first race back after the August summer break. He was able to blast past Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes on the first lap of the Belgian Grand Prix and then controlled the race from there to the chequered flag to claim his fifth GP victory of the year and his second win at the historic Spa circuit, having previously won in Belgium in 2011.
In terms of keeping the F1 world championship battle exciting, there was mixed news: Fernando Alonso rallied from a poor qualifying position to pick up an impressive second place, and Lewis Hamilton keeps his foot in the door by clinging in to the final podium spot, but Kimi Raikkonen's title hopes took a hit with a mid-race retirement as a result of brake failure.
Many teams had been hoping that Spa's notoriously tricky weather would enable them to get back on an even footing with the Red Bull, but it turned out that even the weather was on the reigning world champion's side and playing nice. After all the concerns about showers affecting the race, the field ended up lining up on the grid under blue skies and on a mostly bone dry track - quite a luxury for the drivers. All the forecasts were warning that it would be only a temporary respite before rain moved into the area roughly halfway through the race, putting a 60 per cent figure on the odds, but ultimately the rain clouds simply weren't prepared to come out and play today after they'd had all their fun and games in qualifying on Saturday.
When the lights went out, Lewis Hamilton got a solid start from pole position and went into La Source in the lead, but Sebastian Vettel overcame the curse of outside grid spot and easily held on to second spot when the lights went out. Surprisingly, it was Mark Webber in third place on the grid who stuttered and fell back three spots, enabling Nico Rosberg to move into third place and Jenson Button into fifth place. The best start of all was from Fernando Alonso, who fired the Ferrari up from ninth spot into fifth ahead of the recovering Webber, which pushed down Saturday Q3 star Paul di Resta to seventh position.
Mercedes's strategy was clearly to keep Vettel bottled up behind Hamilton at all costs, but that plan went pear-shaped in the first run through the Kemmel straight which saw the Red Bull cruise past into the lead with staggering ease. As Vettel went into warp speed and started to pull out of sight let alone DRS range, there was nothing Hamilton could do but tuck into second place ahead of Rosberg who was struggling to hold off the attentions of Button for fourth spot.
As the race settled down and there was a predictable chorus of team radio calls telling their drivers to ook after their tyres, the exception to the rule was Fernando Alonso who continued to scythe his way through the field, passing Button in lap 4 down Kemmel with the aid of DRS and then doing the same again to Rosberg to claim third place two laps later. It appeared Mark Webber was taking notes from this driving masterclass, and he tried out the same move - with similar success - on Button to move up a position to fifth with designs on putting Rosberg to the sword as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
That put Button back down where he started in sixth place, some way clear of Paul di Resta who was holding up a pack of cars the first of which was the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, after the Finn had rebounded from a messy first run though La Source at the start. As pacy as Raikkonen appeared at this early stage of the proceedings, there was evident concern on the Lotus pit wall at the amount of heat and brake dust emanating from the front wheels.
Meanwhile Raikkonen's team mate Romain Grosjean was forced out of the points positions after he was squeezed off the track by Sergio Perez at Les Combes on lap 8 - a move that earned Perez a drive-thru from the stewards. Nico Hulkenberg was lucky to escape a sanction for unsafe release in his first pit stop on lap 10, when he was slow to get away from his pit box and nearly crashed into the side of Felipe Massa as a result. Massa had his own headaches, after reporting an electrical problem that not only wiped out KERS but even left him bereft of data on the steering wheel.
Hamilton was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 12, and he emerged back out on track in eighth place which quickly became ninth when Romain Grosjean used DRS to get past the Mercedes. Hamilton quickly undid the setback when he had the advantage of DRS next time around but then had his hands full trying to hold off Alonso who had just come in for his own first stop. Hamilton gifted an easy pass to the Ferrari when he ran wide through La Source at the start of lap 15, and the Mercedes was then unable to match the Ferrari's straight line speed down Kemmel to pull off a counterstrike.
Sebastian Vettel had also pitted, leaving Jenson Button minding the shop for a few minutes until the Red Bull emerged from pit lane and quickly past the McLaren which appeared to be attempting a one-stop strategy, which he executed with a change to hard compound tyres on his sole scheduled stop on lap 18. His team mate Perez came in for his scheduled stop next time by, leaving Grosjean and Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez as the only drivers attempting to go longer on the first stint. Gutierrez finally came in on lap 20 to swap medium tyres for hard compounds, and Grosjean made it to the end of lap 22 before a change in the other direction - a remarkable first stint for the Frenchman, although he was understandably over two seconds a lap off the pace of the leaders by this end of it.
Once the first round of pit stops had played out, Vettel's lead over Alonso was eight seconds and growing, with Hamilton now two seconds in arrears of the Ferrari but a safe five seconds clear of his team mate Rosberg who was duelling Mark Webber to hold on to fourth place. Button had resumed in sixth with Massa regrouping to seventh ahead of Raikkonen and Force India duo Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta.
The anticipated mid-race rain was still conspicuous by its absence as Nico Hulkenberg and Jean-Eric Vergne kicked off the second round of pit stops for the two-stoppers in lap 25. The next visitor to pit lane was far from routine, however, as Kimi Raikkonen appeared having just sailed off the track attempting a pass on Massa at the final chicane, quickly realising that his front brakes had indeed finally gave up the ghost after their earlier overheating issue. Raikkonen was only the second car to retire from the Grand Prix, after Charles Pic had exited on lap 8 with an oil leak in the Caterham.
Two became three minutes later when Paul di Resta became the innocent victim of events ahead of him on lap 28. Williams' Pastor Maldonado had been battling for position with Gutierrez through the final chicane and run slightly wide off the track. He recovered but made minor contact with Adrian Sutil - which jolted in the Williams into the path of the second Force India following close behind. The damage to di resta's car was immense given the relatively minor slow-speed nature of the contact and he was most certainly done for the day; Maldonado was handed a more severe ten-second stop-go penalty by the stewards for causing the incident.
Several of the leaders including Alonso, Webber and Vettel used the local waves yellows for the clean-up operation as a signal to make their final stops. Their final scheduled
stops, at least: the Red Ball pit wall was radioing race leader Vettel to put his foot down, open a gap on Alonso and not worry about conserving tyres to the finish. The reason? This being Spa, it could only be because rain was in the offing even though the local radar showing nothing in the immediate area.
Vettel's lead was soon back up to ten seconds over Alonso, with Button briefly in third place but only until he decided that the one-stop strategy would not be capable of stretching to the finish without surrendering too much pace in the process. Button came in for a second stop after all on lap 35, rejoining once more back in his natural habitat of sixth place ahead of Grosjean and Massa. That promoted Lewis Hamilton back up into third with Rosberg still having to work hard to fend off Webber's advances for fourth place.
With the rain still stubbornly refusing to obey the weather forecasts and make its appearance, and with no further incidents to provoke a safety car period, the remaining laps ran out without any changes at the front. Felipe Massa managed to hold on to seventh place ahead of Grosjean despite his electrical issues, with Sutil finishing in ninth just ahead of Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo who had a flying finish to the race to pop him into the final points paying position at the chequered flag.
But at the front, Vettel's comprehensive demolition job on the opposition at Spa confirms that he's surely well on the way to a fourth consecutive world championship, and Red Bull similarly locked in to another constructors title. His rivals - Alonso, Hamilton, Webber, Raikkonen - can only watch on from a distance, and a rapidly growing distance at that.
Watching Vettel lead the celebrations on the podium it seems clear that when it comes to F1, blondes really do have more fun.See full race results